Nativity of St. John the Baptizer
Beloved. Today, six months before Christmas, we celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptizer. He was six months older than Jesus. We know this because the angel Gabriel had told the Blessed Virgin Mary when he announced to her that she would be the mother of the Savior of the world, the mother of God [Lk. 1.36]: Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. St. John’s conception and birth were miraculous because his parents were elderly well past child-bearing years and had never had children; and at the other end of the spectrum, Jesus’ conception and birth were miraculous, and in deed more so, because He was born of a virgin and with no human father, but God Himself.
It was only right and fitting for St. John the Baptizer that he—such an important person in the kingdom of God—have such a miraculous conception and birth. It marks him; it makes him distinctive, even from the womb. He is special, distinct, and an important person in the kingdom of God because of the work God would have him do. The angel Gabriel tells John’s father, Zachariah, when he announces to him St. John’s conception ][Lk. 1.15-17]: for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” In his announcement, holy angel Gabriel quoted a prophecy from the final OT prophet, St. Malachi [4.5-6]; in fact, the final words of the OT, the final words God spoke for 400 years through the prophets: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers...” And what was St. John’s task/ job? He was to be the one to make ready for the Lord a people prepared; he was to prepare the way for the Savior, Jesus/ announce His coming. And that’s exactly what St. John did! He preached a message of Law, calling on the people to repent and welcome the Savior; He preached a message of Gospel, announcing that the Savior of the world had come; He baptized the repentant.
St. John’s great proclamation pointing the people to Jesus is seen so clearly as we read in the Gospel [John 1.29]: The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! St. John is still preaching to us today: as we sing these words in the communion liturgy, he is pointing us to Jesus in the bread and wine, His very body and blood; there in the sacrament we will eat and drink the very body and blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
St. John knew exactly who he was and what he was to do, since after all he was filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. When St. John was asked who he was, he said, “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” He knew he was the fulfillment of the prophecy; that he was the forerunner of the Messiah. Jesus Himself confirmed this. He said of the Baptizer [Mt. 11. 9-14]: He is more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your Face, who will prepare Your way before you.’ Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptizer….For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. Because of St. John’s role in the history of salvation, because of the prophecies that were specifically about him, it is no wonder that many glorious events surrounded his conception and birth.
What we read in today’s Gospel is certainly one of those glorious events surrounding John’s birth. When the angel St. Gabriel announced to Zachariah that he and his wife would have a child who would be the forerunner of the long awaited Messiah, he wouldn’t believe it [Lk. 1.18]: How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years. Because of his unbelief, the angel stuck him with the inability to speak—until the events of our text, when Zachariah insisted that the child be named John, just as the angel had directed. And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Here was the evidence of his faith, that he had come to believe the angel. St. Luke then records: And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God, and his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. What he by the Holy Spirit spoke and prophesied is the hymn of praise, the Benedictus—the first word in Latin for: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…,” our text. The wonderful thing about the Benedictus, Zachariah’s song of praise, is that it teaches us to praise God for His blessings as we recognize what they are; what moved God to give them to us; and what His goal of these blessings are for us.
Led by the Holy Spirit, St. Zachariah begins his hymn of praise: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. The Lord, the true God, the holy Triune God is to be blessed because he has visited and redeemed his people. This is a gracious visitation; it is God coming to us in grace. Jesus had not yet been born; He was to be in the womb of the Blessed Virgin growing and developing for another 6 months. But what did St. Luke write about St. Zachariah here? That he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. Zachariah is prophesying here. Jesus isn’t born, but Zachariah prophesies and testifies that the Savior, the true God has come/ is here: the Lord God of Israel…has visited. Yes, He is now hidden inside the womb of St. Mary, but Zachariah, with the eyes of faith and filled with the Holy Spirit already now sees Jesus, the true God come to visit His people. And with the certainty of faith and led by the Holy Spirit, this old saint sees the completion of Jesus’ work! Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. He speaks as if Jesus’ work is already completed. That is the certainty of faith and that is the Holy Spirit working through and prophesying through Zachariah that Jesus would complete the work He had come to do.
Again, God is praised because he has visited…his people. This is a visitation of grace and mercy. When Jesus came the first time, it wasn’t in wrath and judgment on account of our sin. Instead, He came to help us from our sin and to rescue us out of our slavery to sin and devil; He came to save us from hell and the just rewards of our sin. That’s why He lived for us a holy life, fulfilling God’s holy Law for us; that’s why He took our sins on Him to the cross where He suffered for us God’s wrath and punishment. Jesus is that horn of salvation [God has raised up for us] in the house of his servant David. A horn is a symbol/ picture of strength. Jesus is that strong, unwavering help for us in sin, for salvation and in every trial; He is our power, defense, what we can rely upon in every spiritual and physical need.
The joyful mystery is that Jesus is not just true God—the Lord God of Israel [who]… has visited and redeemed his people—but He is also—in the house of his servant David—that is, true man, a descendant of David; He is truly one of us and so can be our Savior by being our Substitute in life, under the law, and in death, on the cross for our sins. As true man, Jesus knows exactly what we suffer, our hurts, trials and temptations and so He knows the best way to help us—and as God He can/ does!
Jesus comes to us/ He visits us today. He comes in grace. Sometimes it is even in His holy word of the Law so that we feel our sin and guilt; but that’s not the end—instead, by this He wants to drive us to Him, the Savior of sinners. He comes to us in His holy word of the Gospel to comfort us in our hurts and struggles in life and assure us of His help and guidance; and especially does He come in the Gospel—be it the word, be it the holy absolution, be it holy sacraments—and give us the forgiveness of sins and peace.
St. Zachariah continues: as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us. All of the blessings of salvation—the very fact that Jesus, the true God, actually came and was born of the virgin to save us from our sin and damnation is all the result of the promises that God made and spoke through His holy prophets. The rescue that He was bringing about—and that Zachariah saw complete with the eyes of faith and which stands before us complete—all came about because God had promised it long before! That means what? God’s promises often take a long time to be realized—but He is faithful and He keeps them. And look at the wonderful promise of a Savior and our salvation that was thousands of years in the making and was kept: we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. This is the final and complete rescue Jesus obtained for us. He came and rescued us from all our spiritual enemies—sin, death, hell, devil. He defeated them and snatched us out of their grasp. Yes, although we are still surrounded by our spiritual enemies of the devil, the sinful world and even our sinful self within us, they are defeated enemies. Jesus will grant us the victory over them. Let us hold on to Him in faith. His victory is ours.
Notice God’s motivation here. The Father sent the Son to be our Savior. Why? –Because we are so worthy and deserving? Hardly! We are only worthy and deserving of God’s wrath and damnation. But God’s mercy on us sinners is His motivation to promise to save us and to actually do it! –To show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. All of God’s gracious work in saving us sinners is a monument of His grace and mercy. How worthy is our merciful God of our praise and glory! Even as we earn/ deserve none of it, He is faithful to His word and promise. Don’t ever let the devil drive you to despair thinking that your sin is too great! The grace and mercy of God is greater; the work and sacrifice of Jesus is greater than any of your sin. Hold to God’s promise to you in the absolution, at your baptism, in the Sacrament of the Altar. He will never turn away from it not matter how much we may have turned from Him. His promise is based on His grace and willingness to forgive. He is always faithful to His promise—even after a long time; when it looks like He has forgotten—He hasn’t!
What’s the goal/ purpose of God showing us mercy? Is it that we may continue on in sin as before? Absolutely not! St. Zachariah tells us: that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Since we have been delivered from the hand of our enemies that means that with the forgiveness of our sins, we have a peaceful conscience and joyful heart—in Jesus things are right between us and God. We know Him as our Savior and dear loving Father. We are certain not only of heaven one day but of His grace and working all things for our good now. We have the Holy Spirit in us who leads us into a life of faith and good works—in us the power of sin is broken. Through faith in Jesus we not only have the forgiveness of sin but we receive His perfect holiness and righteousness. In them alone we serve and please God. INJ